Federal judges in Western Washington state give lighter sentences than guidelines call for at 10 times the national rate. About one in five defendants get a break, reports the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Only Arizona exceeded Seattle’s record, and that is likely a statistical aberration explained by the handling of deportations of illegal aliens. The average defendant convicted of a crack cocaine offense nationally in 2006 got just over 10 years in prison, says the U.S. Sentencing Commission. In Seattle, crack defendants got an average of seven years.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruling on crack cocaine sentences on Monday reflected what is going on in Seattle’s federal courts. That prosecutors give many defendants a break reflects a larger trend in Seattle that appears to defy a Bush administration fiat that U.S. attorneys “must charge and pursue the most serious readily provable offenses.” Seattle U.S. Attorney John McKay, along with seven prosecutors in other cities, was sacked for what appeared to be political reasons. Internal Justice Department e-mails released two weeks ago by the House Judiciary Committee slam the Seattle U.S. Attorney’s Office on the sentencing issue and intimate that sentences could be used to justify McKay’s firing. A message from Michael Elston, then-chief of staff to the deputy attorney general, notes the Justice Department’s intent to follow sentencing guidelines and says: “Since January 2005, the United States Attorney’s Office in Seattle has compiled one of the worst sentencing records in the country.” McKay and his successor, Jeff Sullivan, reject that characterization. Both say no one, including from the Department of Justice, ever complained about the office’s sentencing record.